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The Life of Thomas Telford
Chapter IV. Roads in Scotland last centuary


The internal communications of Scotland, which Telford did so much in the course of his life to improve, were, if possible, even worse than those of England about the middle of last century. The land was more sterile, and the people were much poorer. Indeed, nothing could be more dreary than the aspect which Scotland then presented. Her fields lay untilled, her mines unexplored, and her fisheries uncultivated. The Scotch towns were for the most part collections of thatched mud cottages, giving scant shelter to a miserable population. The whole country was desponding, gaunt, and haggard, like Ireland in its worst times. The common people were badly fed and wretchedly clothed, those in the country for the most part living in huts with their cattle. Lord Kaimes said of the Scotch tenantry of the early part of last century, that they were so benumbed by oppression and poverty that the most able instructors in husbandry could have made nothing of them. A writer in the 'Farmer's Magazine' sums up his account of Scotland at that time in these words:--"Except in a few instances, it was little better than a barren waste."*[1]

The modern traveller through the Lothians--which now exhibit perhaps the finest agriculture in the world--will scarcely believe that less than a century ago these counties were mostly in the state in which Nature had left them. In the interior there was little to be seen but bleak moors and quaking bogs. The chief part of each farm consisted of "out-field," or unenclosed land, no better than moorland, from which the hardy black cattle could scarcely gather herbage enough in winter to keep them from starving. The "in-field" was an enclosed patch of illcultivated ground, on which oats and "bear," or barley, were grown; but the principal crop was weeds.

Of the small quantity of corn raised in the country, nine-tenths were grown within five miles of the coast; and of wheat very little was raised--not a blade north of the Lothians. When the first crop of that grain was tried on a field near Edinburgh, about the middle of last century, people flocked to it as a wonder. Clover, turnips, and potatoes had not yet been introduced, and no cattle were fattened: it was with difficulty they could be kept alive.

All loads were as yet carried on horseback; but when the farm was too small, or the crofter too poor to keep a horse, his own or his wife's back bore the load. The horse brought peats from the bog, carried the oats or barley to market, and bore the manure a-field. But the uses of manure were as yet so little understood that, if a stream were near, it was usually thrown in and floated away, and in summer it was burnt.

What will scarcely be credited, now that the industry of Scotland has become educated by a century's discipline of work, was the inconceivable listlessness and idleness of the people. They left the bog unreclaimed, and the swamp undrained. They would not be at the trouble to enclose lands easily capable of cultivation. There was, perhaps, but little inducement on the part of the agricultural class to be industrious; for they were too liable to be robbed by those who preferred to be idle. Andrew Fletcher, of Saltoun--commonly known as "The Patriot," because he was so strongly opposed to the union of Scotland with England*[2]-- published a pamphlet, in 1698, strikingly illustrative of the lawless and uncivilized state of the country at that time. After giving a dreadful picture of the then state of Scotland: two hundred thousand vagabonds begging from door to door and robbing and plundering the poor people,-- "in years of plenty many thousands of them meeting together in the mountains, where they feast and riot for many days; and at country weddings, markets, burials, and other like public occasions, they are to be seen, both men and women, perpetually drunk, cursing, blaspheming, and fighting together,"--he proceeded to urge that every man of a certain estate should be obliged to take a proportionate number of these vagabonds and compel them to work for him; and further, that such serfs, with their wives and children, should be incapable of alienating their service from their master or owner until he had been reimbursed for the money he had expended on them: in other words, their owner was to have the power of selling them. "The Patriot" was, however, aware that "great address, diligence, and severity" were required to carry out his scheme; "for," said he, "that sort of people are so desperately wicked, such enemies of all work and labour, and, which is yet more amazing, so proud in esteeming their own condition above that which they will be sure to call Slavery, that unless prevented by the utmost industry and diligence, upon the first publication of any orders necessary for putting in execution such a design, they will rather die with hunger in caves and dens, and murder their young children, than appear abroad to have them and themselves taken into such service."*[3]

Although the recommendations of Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun were embodied in no Act of Parliament, the magistrates of some of the larger towns did not hesitate to kidnap and sell into slavery lads and men found lurking in the streets, which they continued to do down to a comparatively recent period. This, however, was not so surprising as that at the time of which we are speaking, and, indeed, until the end of last century, there was a veritable slave class in Scotland--the class of colliers and salters--who were bought and sold with the estates to which they belonged, as forming part of the stook. When they ran away, they were advertised for as negroes were in the American States until within the last few years. It is curious, in turning over an old volume of the 'Scots Magazine,' to find a General Assembly's petition to Parliament for the abolition of slavery in America almost alongside the report of a trial of some colliers who had absconded from a mine near Stirling to which they belonged. But the degraded condition of the home slaves then excited comparatively little interest. Indeed, it was not until the very last year of the last century that praedial slavery was abolished in Scotland--only three short reigns ago, almost within the memory of men still living.*[4] The greatest resistance was offered to the introduction of improvements in agriculture, though it was only at rare intervals that these were attempted. There was no class possessed of enterprise or wealth. An idea of the general poverty of the country may be inferred from the fact that about the middle of last century the whole circulating medium of the two Edinburgh banks--the only institutions of the kind then in Scotland--amounted to only 200,000L., which was sufficient for the purposes of trade, commerce, and industry. Money was then so scarce that Adam Smith says it was not uncommon for workmen, in certain parts of Scotland, to carry nails instead of pence to the baker's or the alehouse. A middle class could scarcely as yet be said to exist, or any condition between the starving cottiers and the impoverished proprietors, whose available means were principally expended in hard drinking.*[5]

The latter were, for the most part, too proud and too ignorant to interest themselves in the improvement of their estates; and the few who did so had very little encouragement to persevere. Miss Craig, in describing the efforts made by her father, William Craig, laird of Arbigland, in Kirkcudbright, says, "The indolent obstinacy of the lower class of the people was found to be almost unconquerable. Amongst other instances of their laziness, I have heard him say that, upon the introduction of the mode of dressing the grain at night which had been thrashed during the day, all the servants in the neighbourhood refused to adopt the measure, and even threatened to destroy the houses of their employers by fire if they continued to insist upon the business. My father speedily perceived that a forcible remedy was required for the evil. He gave his servants the choice of removing the thrashed grain in the evening, or becoming inhabitants of Kirkcudbright gaol: they preferred the former alternative, and open murmurings were no longer heard."*[6]

The wages paid to the labouring classes were then very low. Even in East Lothian, which was probably in advance of the other Scotch counties, the ordinary day's wage of a labouring man was only five pence in winter and six pence in summer. Their food was wholly vegetable, and was insufficient in quantity as well as bad in quality. The little butcher's meat consumed by the better class was salted beef and mutton, stored up in Ladner time (between Michaelmas and Martinmas) for the year's consumption. Mr. Buchan Hepburn says the Sheriff of East Lothian informed him that he remembered when not a bullock was slaughtered in Haddington market for a whole year, except at that time; and, when Sir David Kinloch, of Gilmerton sold ten wedders to an Edinburgh butcher, he stipulated for three several terms to take them away, to prevent the Edinburgh market from being overstocked with fresh butcher's meat!*[7]

The rest of Scotland was in no better state: in some parts it was even worse. The rich and fertile county of Ayr, which now glories in the name of "the garden of Scotland," was for the most part a wild and dreary waste, with here and there a poor, miserable, comfortless hut, where the farmer and his family lodged. There were no enclosures of land, except one or two about a proprietor's residence; and black cattle roamed at large over the face of the country. When an attempt was made to enclose the lands for the purposes of agriculture, the fences were levelled by the dispossessed squatters. Famines were frequent among the poorer classes; the western counties not producing food enough for the sustenance of the inhabitants, few though they were in number. This was also the case in Dumfries, where the chief part of the grain required for the population was brought in "tumbling-cars" from the sandbeds of Esk; "and when the waters were high by reason of spates [or floods], and there being no bridges, so that the cars could not come with the meal, the tradesmen's wives might be seen in the streets of Dumfries, crying; because there was no food to be had."*[8]

The misery of the country was enormously aggravated by the wretched state of the roads. There were, indeed, scarcely any made roads throughout the country. Hence the communication between one town and another was always difficult, especially in winter. There were only rough tracks across moors, and when one track became too deep, another alongside of it was chosen, and was in its turn abandoned, until the whole became equally impassable. In wet weather these tracks became "mere sloughs, in which the carts or carriages had to slumper through in a half-swimming state, whilst, in times of drought it was a continual jolting out of one hole into another."*[9]

Such being the state of the highways, it will be obvious that very little communication could exist between one part of the country and another. Single-horse traffickers, called cadgers, plied between the country towns and the villages, supplying the inhabitants with salt, fish, earthenware, and articles of clothing, which they carried in sacks or creels hung across their horses' backs. Even the trade between Edinburgh and Glasgow was carried on in the same primitive way, the principal route being along the high grounds west of Boroughstoness, near which the remains of the old pack-horse road are still to be seen.

It was long before vehicles of any sort could be used on the Scotch roads. Rude sledges and tumbling-cars were employed near towns, and afterwards carts, the wheels of which were first made of boards. It was long before travelling by coach could be introduced in Scotland. When Smollett travelled from Glasgow to Edinburgh on his way to London, in 1739, there was neither coach, cart, nor waggon on the road. He accordingly accompanied the pack-horse carriers as far as Newcastle, "sitting upon a pack-saddle between two baskets, one of which," he says, "contained my goods in a knapsack."

In 1743 an attempt was made by the Town Council of Glasgow to set up a stage-coach or "lando." It was to be drawn by six horses, carry six passengers, and run between Glasgow and Edinburgh, a distance of forty-four miles, once a week in winter, and twice a week in summer. The project, however, seems to have been thought too bold for the time, for the "lando" was never started. It was not until the year 1749 that the first public conveyance, called "The Glasgow and Edinburgh Caravan," was started between the two cities, and it made the journey between the one place and the other in two days. Ten years later another vehicle was started, named "The Fly" because of its unusual speed, and it contrived to make the journey in rather less than a day and a half.

About the same time, a coach with four horses was started between Haddington and Edinburgh, and it took a full winter's day to perform the journey of sixteen miles: the effort being to reach Musselburgh in time for dinner, and go into town in the evening. As late as 1763 there was as only one stage-coach in all Scotland in communication with London, and that set out from Edinburgh only once a month. The journey to London occupied from ten to fifteen days, according to the state of the weather; and those who undertook so dangerous a journey usually took the precaution of making their wills before starting.

When carriers' carts were established, the time occupied by them on the road will now appear almost incredible. Thus the common carrier between Selkirk and Edinburgh, a distance of only thirty-eight miles, took about a fortnight to perform the double journey. Part of the road lay along Gala Water, and in summer time, when the river-bed was dry, the carrier used it as a road. The townsmen of this adventurous individual, on the morning of his way-going, were accustomed to turn out and take leave of him, wishing him a safe return from his perilous journey. In winter the route was simply impracticable, and the communication was suspended until the return of dry weather.

While such was the state of the communications in the immediate neighbourhood of the metropolis of Scotland, matters were, if possible, still worse in the remoter parts of the country. Down to the middle of last century, there were no made roads of any kind in the south-western counties. The only inland trade was in black cattle; the tracks were impracticable for vehicles, of which there were only a few--carts and tumbling-cars--employed in the immediate neighbourhood of the towns. When the Marquis of Downshire attempted to make a journey through Galloway in his coach, about the year 1760, a party of labourers with tools attended him, to lift the vehicle out of the ruts and put on the wheels when it got dismounted. Even with this assistance, however, his Lordship occasionally stuck fast, and when within about three miles of the village of Creetown, near Wigton, he was obliged to send away the attendants, and pass the night in his coach on the Corse of Slakes with his family.

Matters were, of course, still worse in the Highlands, where the rugged character of the country offered formidable difficulties to the formation of practicable roads, and where none existed save those made through the rebel districts by General Wade shortly after the rebellion of 1715. The people were also more lawless and, if possible, more idle, than those of the Lowland districts about the same period. The latter regarded their northern neighbours as the settlers in America did the Red Indians round their borders--like so many savages always ready to burst in upon them, fire their buildings, and carry off their cattle.*[10]

Very little corn was grown in the neighbourhood of the Highlands, on account of its being liable to be reaped and carried off by the caterans, and that before it was ripe. The only method by which security of a certain sort could be obtained was by the payment of blackmail to some of the principal chiefs, though this was not sufficient to protect them against the lesser marauders. Regular contracts were drawn up between proprietors in the counties of Perth, Stirling, and Dumbarton, and the Macgregors, in which it was stipulated that if less than seven cattle were stolen--which peccadillo was known as picking--no redress should be required; but if the number stolen exceeded seven--such amount of theft being raised to the dignity of lifting--then the Macgregors were bound to recover. This blackmail was regularly levied as far south as Campsie--then within six miles of Glasgow, but now almost forming part of it--down to within a few months of the outbreak of the Rebellion of 1745.*[11]

Under such circumstances, agricultural improvement was altogether impossible. The most fertile tracts were allowed to lie waste, for men would not plough or sow where they had not the certain prospect of gathering in the crop. Another serious evil was, that the lawless habits of their neighbours tended to make the Lowland borderers almost as ferocious as the Higlanders themselves. Feuds were of constant occurrence between neighbouring baronies, and even contiguous parishes; and the country fairs, which were tacitly recognised as the occasions for settling quarrels, were the scenes of as bloody faction fights as were ever known in Ireland even in its worst days. When such was the state of Scotland only a century ago, what may we not hope for from Ireland when the civilizing influences of roads, schools, and industry have made more general progress amongst her people?

Yet Scotland had not always been in this miserable condition. There is good reason to believe that as early as the thirteenth century, agriculture was in a much more advanced state than we find it to have been the eighteenth. It would appear from the extant chartularies of monastic establishments, which then existed all over the Lowlands, that a considerable portion of their revenue was derived from wheat, which also formed no inconsiderable part of their living. The remarkable fact is mentioned by Walter de Hemingford, the English historian, that when the castle of Dirleton, in East Lothian, was besieged by the army of Edward I., in the beginning of July, 1298, the men, being reduced to great extremities for provisions, were fain to subsist on the pease and beans which they gathered in the fields.*[12] This statement is all the more remarkable on two accounts: first, that pease and beans should then have been so plentiful as to afford anything like sustenance for an army; and second, that they should have been fit for use so early in the season, even allowing for the difference between the old and new styles in the reckoning of time. The magnificent old abbeys and churches of Scotland in early times also indicate that at some remote period a degree of civilization and prosperity prevailed, from which the country had gradually fallen. The ruins of the ancient edifices of Melrose, Kilwinning, Aberborthwick, Elgin, and other religious establishments, show that architecture must then have made great progress in the North, and lead us to the conclusion that the other arts had reached a like stage of advancement. This is borne out by the fact of the number of well-designed and well-built bridges of olden times which still exist in different parts of Scotland. "And when we consider," says Professor Innes, "the long and united efforts required in the early state of the arts for throwing a bridge over any considerable river, the early occurrence of bridges may well be admitted as one of the best tests of civilization and national prosperity."*[13] As in England, so in Scotland, the reclamation of lands, the improvement of agriculture, and the building of bridges were mainly due to the skill and industry of the old churchmen. When their ecclesiastical organization was destroyed, the country speedily relapsed into the state from which they had raised it; and Scotland continued to lie in ruins almost till our own day, when it has again been rescued from barrenness, more effectually even than before, by the combined influences of roads, education, and industry.

Footnotes for Chapter IV.

*[1] 'Farmer's Magazine,' 1803. No. xiii. p. 101.

*[2] Bad although the condition of Scotland was at the beginning of last century, there were many who believed that it would be made worse by the carrying of the Act of Union. The Earl of Wigton was one of these. Possessing large estates in the county of Stirling, and desirous of taking every precaution against what he supposed to be impending ruin, he made over to his tenants, on condition that they continued to pay him their then low rents, his extensive estates in the parishes of Denny, Kirkintulloch, and Cumbernauld, retaining only a few fields round the family mansion ['Farmer's Magazine,' 1808, No. xxxiv. p. 193]. Fletcher of Saltoun also feared the ruinous results of the Union, though he was less precipitate in his conduct than the Earl of Wigton. We need scarcely say how entirely such apprehensions were falsified by the actual results.

*[3] 'Fletcher's Political Works,' London, 1737, p. 149. As the population of Scotland was then only about 1,200,000, the beggars of the country, according to the above account, must have constituted about one-sixth of the whole community.

*[4] Act 39th George III. c. 56. See 'Lord Cockburn's Memorials,' pp. 76-9. As not many persons may be aware how recent has been the abolition of slavery in Britain, the author of this book may mention the fact that he personally knew a man who had been "born a slave in Scotland," to use his own words, and lived to tell it. He had resisted being transferred to another owner on the sale of the estate to which he was "bound," and refused to "go below," on which he was imprisoned in Edinburgh gaol, where he lay for a considerable time. The case excited much interest, and probably had some effect in leading to the alteration in the law relating to colliers and salters which shortly after followed.

*[5] See 'Autobiography of Dr. Alexander Carlyle,' passim.

*[6] 'Farmer's Magazine.' June. 1811. No. xlvi. p. 155.

*[7] See Buchan Hepburn's 'General View of the Agriculture and Economy of East Lothian,' 1794, p. 55.

*[8]Letter of John Maxwell, in Appendix to Macdiarmid's 'Picture of Dumfries,' 1823

*[9] Robertson's 'Rural Recollections,' p. 38.

*[10] Very little was known of the geography of the Highlands down to the beginning of the seventeenth century The principal information on the subject being derived from Danish materials. It appears, however, that in 1608, one Timothy Pont, a young man without fortune or patronage, formed the singular resolution of travelling over the whole of Scotland, with the sole view of informing himself as to the geography of the country, and he persevered to the end of his task through every kind of difficulty; exploring 'all the islands with the zeal of a missionary, though often pillaged and stript of everything; by the then barbarous inhabitant's. The enterprising youth received no recognition nor reward for his exertions, and he died in obscurity, leaving his maps and papers to his heirs. Fortunately, James I. heard of the existence of Pont's papers, and purchased them for public use. They lay, however, unused for a long time in the offices of the Scotch Court of Chancery, until they were at length brought to light by Mr. Robert Gordon, of Straloch, who made them the basis of the first map of Scotland having any pretensions to accuracy that was ever published.

*[11] Mr. Grant, of Corrymorry, used to relate that his father, when speaking of the Rebellion of 1745, always insisted that a rising in the Highlands was absolutely necessary to give employment to the numerous bands of lawless and idle young men who infested every property.--Anderson's 'Highlands and Islands of Scotland,' p. 432.

*[12] 'Lord Hailes Annals,' i., 379.

*[13] Professor Innes's 'Sketches of Early Scottish History.' The principal ancient bridges in Scotland were those over the Tay at Perth (erected in the thirteenth century) over the Esk at Brechin and Marykirk; over the Bee at Kincardine, O'Neil, and Aberdeen; over the Don, near the same city; over the Spey at Orkhill; over the Clyde at Glasgow; over the Forth at Stirling; and over the Tyne at Haddington.


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